Trump at the Midpoint: Will He Endure?

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It has been a little over two years since Donald J. Trump took the Oval Office. Although a rough ride, it’s far from the catastrophe that most pundits predicted. This article was published in Left Voice magazine in April 2019.

Illustration by Ailin Rojas Bondarczuk

Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost three million votes and only became the 45th president thanks to the highly undemocratic Electoral College system. Still, the results of the 2016 elections were an expression of both the crisis affecting both parties and a generalized anti-establishment sentiment which, after Hillary’s nomination, translated to some extent to an anti-Hillary sentiment. Immediately after the elections, we said Trump’s tenure would be one of weak bonapartism.1 As Claudia Cinatti states, his victory “confirms and deepens the trend towards an organic crisis that has become evident in core countries since the Great Recession of 2008, and may be interpreted as one of those ‘aberrant phenomena’ referred to by Antonio Gramsci, which emerge in intermediate situations when the old cannot go on and it is not yet clear what the new will look like.” From the beginning of his campaign, Trump had to rely on support from the reactionary elements in the country and broad mistrust of and hostility towards Hillary Clinton and was without overwhelming support inside the GOP. The basis of this initial characterization is still valid two years after the election, even more so after losing the support of the military bureaucracy embodied by former generals like John Kelly, James Mattis, and H.R. McMaster. As Trump’s lack of hegemony becomes more acute he is forced to adopt positions that are increasingly extreme and polarizing; he must further consolidate his base with the rhetoric that propelled him to the presidency in the first place.

The Midterms

At a rally at Southeaven, Mississippi this October, Trump said, “I’m not on the ticket but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me”. After claiming command of the GOP by making it clear that any Republican who wanted a chance in the primaries needed his endorsement, Trump made the midterms all about himself. And despite the serious hit the GOP took in the elections, he tried to pose as a winner.

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While the “blue wave” wasn’t as overwhelming as some Democrats had hoped, the outcome was enough to allow the Democrats to regain control of the House. The GOP expanded their advantage in the Senate, courtesy of an electoral system which awards California—which has a population of close to 40 million—the same number of senators as Wyoming—which has a population of barely over half a million. The result is a “divided” government in which either of the two parties can block the other’s initiatives, but one in which, due to their control of the House, Democrats have the power of subpoena; this has the potential to make Trump sweat. And though nearly all presidents lose ground in the midterms, Trump was buoyed by a supposedly prospering economy yet still performed poorly in the polls.

This year’s midterm elections also had the highest voter turnout since 1914, reversing a trend toward declining interest in midterms. One of the direct causes of the increased participation is growing anti-Trump sentiment, heightened by events like the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle.2 The Kavanaugh incident, in particular, sparked strong reactions on both sides, with the far-right defending an alleged sex offender and the #KavaNOPE protests against him.

The midterms also led to one of the most diverse Houses in history (with many female, non-white, and young members), along with many firsts: Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women in Congress while Deb Haaland and Sharice Davis are now the first Native American women. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman ever to be seated in the House, and Ayanna Pressley is the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. The Senate, on the other hand, remains predominantly white, old and male.

The GOP

“In conservative circles, the failure to go full #MAGA carries the risk of irrelevance and exile.”3 In other words, the Grand Old Party has become Trump’s party. This is significant since the Republican establishment, staunch defenders of the neoliberal consensus, fiercely—but futilely—resisted Trump’s nomination for president. Trump’s approval rating of about 40 percent (Gallup) seems more like a problem for the GOP than for Trump himself because the worst that can happen to him is a one-term presidency, but with an approval rating among Republicans that hovers around 90 percent, the party will be forever saddled with the record of one of the most unpopular presidents in U.S. history.

Moreover, Trump’s polarizing strategy for the midterms may have been sufficient to further consolidate his base but his blatant use of flat-out lies and his racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric made the party lose votes among some traditional Republican voters in the suburban middle class—mainly college-educated women who ended up voting for the Democrats—not because they had suddenly become liberals, but because they despise Trump. Prior to the midterms, Sykes said: “Tainted by association with Trump, Republicans are shedding support among young voters, who disapprove of the president by a margin of more than 40 points in one poll. For many of those voters, the face of conservatism will continue to be ignorant, bigoted, and cruel, and polls suggest that the right could face a generational political tsunami as a result. At the same time, Republicans are embracing hardline immigration policies (travel bans, deportations, a wall) and nativist rhetoric that alienate moderates and drive minority voters away from the party, perhaps for a generation or more.” While the GOP can’t do much about their reputation among young people, who consider them “ignorant, bigoted and cruel,” there are certain wings inside the party that advocate for a less inflammatory rhetoric in order to win back some of their lost voters.

Trump’s chances of reelection in 2020 seem weak given his historically low approval rating and an almost certainly impending economic slowdown, with the result that the GOP finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Either they take their chances with Trump once again and stand by a mercurially pragmatic leader that’s reshaping the party and moving it away from the globalist, free-trade policies and toward protectionism and even nationalism, or they move away from him and risk an even greater loss of legitimacy among the Republican voters that see a messiah in the president.

The dynamics of the situation make both of these choices very real possibilities. While most of GOP members of the House and Senate have rallied behind the real estate tycoon on matters like the border wall or the government shutdown, anti-Trump conservatives are desperately looking for a new leader from within the GOP. The president may have seemed to have a grip on the party before the midterms but the poor showing was like blood in the water drawing the sharks. With McCain and Bush gone and Flake and Croker retiring, all eyes are posed on Mitt Romney, whose op-ed in the Washington Post (January 1, 2019) might have brought some hope to the party. Despite this, it’s doubtful that any Republican voter will consider him a promising candidate. During the last days of the shutdown, there was a small rebellion of the Republicans in the Senate, which was almost certainly one of the reasons for Trump’s decision to cave rather than risk the emergence of an alternative leadership (the other, of course, being the massive air traffic controller’s sick-out that was starting to disrupt the finances of air travel).

The Dems

Rather than winning on the basis of their own strengths, Democrats succeeded in 2018 primarily because of Trump’s weakness. This is illustrated by the sudden gains made by Democrats in the Rust Belt, a region that was key to Trump’s 2016 victory. In traditionally Democratic bastions on both coasts, several seats were flipped, including seven in California and three in New York.4 Overall, the Democrats extended the advantage in the popular vote compared to 2016.

Nancy Pelosi reclaimed the gavel in the House once again, proving both her own political skills and the resilience of the “establishment wing” of the Democratic Party. She navigated quite well through the “rebellion” posed by some Democrat representatives and, although she was forced to negotiate a four-year term limit, she garnered a vast majority of the votes for the speakership, including those of the left-wing insurgency. Just days after taking office, both Alexandría Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib voted to confirm the 78-year-old Democrat who represents the most hawkish wing of the party.

This marks a clear limit to the strategy of “democratic socialists” like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib who have expressed their intention to “renew” the party. In early January, both freshman Congresswomen went on to vote for a bill which included funding for ICE, the very agency they called to abolish during their campaigns. But later that same month, most likely upon feeling the pressure of her supporters, Ocasio-Cortez voted against another law to re-open the government including ICE funding, revealing the contradictions inherent in her campaign.

Upon taking office, Pelosi made it clear how she planned to run the House. Her strategy seems to be sparing the GOP the crisis of impeachment, and instead letting Trump finish his term as he hacks away at any “credibility” the GOP has built, especially among the youth who identify as Republicans but are turning away from Trump.5 Discussing impeachment on CBS’s Sunday Morning, she declared that “it will have to be something that has such a crescendo in a bipartisan way”, showing to what extent the Democratic Party is committed to maintaining the bipartisan status quo. The other side of the strategy is using every means available to continuously erode Trump’s popularity on the road to the next presidential election. This explains lackluster attempts to look ‘tough’ while engaging in actions with little or no real impact, such as the possible subpoena of Michael Cohen to appear before the House Oversight and Reform Committee (given that Mueller will most likely bar him from discussing Russia-related matters) and the bills passed in the House—which had almost no chance of getting anywhere in the Senate—to reopen the government. Both parties callously used the “scandal” created by the shutdown as an electoral strategy, without showing any interest in how this affects the lives of the roughly 800,000 workers left without pay. Republicans depict themselves as ‘hardliners’ and Democrats as humanitarians (despite their awful record on immigration). Neither Republicans nor Democrats have hesitated to make use of the working class when campaigning for their votes, but has no problem making them casualties of their feud.

The regime

Only the relatively strong performance of Wall Street during the Trump era can explain why his administration has survived all the scandals it has faced. But there, too, are signs of deceleration—the flattening of the yield curve, the volatility of the stock market, and the predictions of weak growth—so an even more unstable situation is to be expected in the near future.

At an international level, capitalist economies are struggling to recover pre-recession levels of growth, and the rate of profit is below acceptable levels, with some local exceptions. The traditional political parties are in decline worldwide, and society is being increasingly pushed to extremes on both sides of the spectrum. From the bourgeoisie’s point of view, the only way out of this is the continuation of the advance against the working class and an even greater increase in the level of exploitation. This method has had some successes, such as pension reforms in France and Argentina and the labor market reform in Brazil, but so far, most of these attempts have sparked some level of resistance.

The trade war with China is a constant source of instability, and a large section of the American bourgeoisie actively opposes it, even though they and the politicians who represent them agree that something must be done in order to stop China. A cold war has been going on since day one both in the West Wing and the state apparatus as Trump’s foreign policy for the Middle East and the strained relationships with traditional allies have been met with resistance among the different factions of bureaucracy—including his own officials. There have been a myriad of investigations against Trump, his staff, and his family which have produced some important results—National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned under the pressure of the investigation, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort are expecting jail time, the Trump Foundation was forced to dissolve amid several accusation of misusing its funds, and the inauguration committee is still being examined by federal prosecutors in New York.

The intelligence community also took a hit with the firing of James Comey, and the FBI has responded with an ongoing investigation to determine whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia. Most notably, Mueller seems to be getting closer to cornering Trump, and there’s a dispute over the public release of the final report, which was a big discussion during William Barr’s Attorney General confirmation hearing. Barr said, “I am going to make as much information available as I can, consistent with the rules and regulations,” revealing a willingness to hide Mueller’s findings. This crisis is comparable to the Watergate scandal, so should more hard evidence against Trump appear, an impeachment scenario cannot be dismissed, even with Pelosi’s stance against initiating the process. It is too early to say whether Mueller’s indictment of Roger Stone can precipitate this scenario, but it is clear that Trump is progressively losing room to maneuver.

The social polarization and battles we see in the U.S. isn’t ending anytime soon. The far right has found its channel of expression through Trump, and the GOP merely seems to be its amplifier. The more traditionally center-right Republicans are concerned because the party is bleeding support. Politico reports that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is meeting with the “Never Trump” Republicans and seems to be considering a GOP primary bid against Trump. Given the level of support Trump has among Republican voters, any primary challenge from within the party—and especially from its establishment wing—could be seen as an affront, not only to the president but also to his base. This will further deepen the current crisis of the party with unpredictable results.

Trump’s recent capitulation on the shutdown issue is the second major defeat he has suffered in the last few months, and it comes with complex results. On the one hand, it might deepen the aforementioned crisis because, while he has reached historically low approval ratings among the general population, Gallup reports that his approval rating among Republicans remains constant around 80 percent. On the other hand, conservative media stars like Ann Coulter have already started criticizing him and calling him “the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States.” If this has some effect on his base, Trump will lose supporters, and the GOP might gather the nerve to challenge him.

On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats are rebranding themselves with a new generation of “progressive” candidates. The establishment Democrats, however, still have a firm handle on the reigns of the party as they always have when contending with new political phenomena. With this new image, they are attempting to engage a generation of voters that was galvanized by the Sanders campaign in 2016 but then turned their backs on Hillary even after Sanders endorsed her and asked his supporters to vote for her. As Pelosi revealed in a famous town hall in 2017, the contradiction faced by the party is the need to keep their core capitalist principles at its center.6 This is in contrast to some of the policies—like Medicare for All or college debt forgiveness—put forward by a more left-leaning wing of the party. Although these are moderate reforms, they will be actively resisted by the capitalists who profit from the increasingly privatized health and education systems. There is also a whole generation of millennials, to whom the Dems must appeal, that sees capitalism as a broken system and holds a positive opinion of socialism.7

The Democratic primary season is already underway, and there are already too many candidates to make a prediction about the outcome. Hypothetically, if a “left progressive” performs as well as Sanders did in 2016, the DNC will be faced with a tough decision. Superdelegates, members of the party’s elite, are unlikely to support an “insurgent candidate.” However, should they once again back an establishment candidate, the party risks alienating a large portion of voters—particularly young people and Rust Belt voters as was the case in 2016.

In the midst of this environment in the U.S., there are two phenomena that are auspicious for the revolutionary left. One is the political awakening of a generation that has no faith in the capitalist system and is actively looking for alternatives. This process came to life most publicly when large sections of youth organized around the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, but can be traced to the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, and is today expressed in the new wave of insurgent Democrats and the upsurge of membership in the Democratic Socialists of America.8 The other is the growing labor unrest across the country, expressed in the “Teachers Spring” of 2018 and which has found a continuity in the LA teachers’ strike of early January along with the threats of strikes by teachers in Denver and Virginia. The victories achieved by the Boston and Chicago hotel workers are other expressions of this turn to labor activism. In fact, the number of strike days in major work stoppages has risen to over 2.8 million in 2018 from 440,000 in 2017, and the number of workers on strike reached 642,600 for the first time in since 1983.9

Notes

Notes

1. Claudia Cinatti, “Trump: The Fall of the Neoliberal Narrative,” Left Voice, December 29, 2016.

2. Francesca Gomes, “Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court, and the Need for a Stronger Challenge,” Left Voice, October 21, 2018,

3. Charles Sykes, “How the GOP Became Trump’s Party,” The Weekly Standard, October 21, 2018.

4. “U.S. House Battlegrounds, 2018,” Ballotpedia, accessed January 24, 2019.

5.  Katy Steinmetz-Fullerton, “‘The Most Hated Person On Campus’: Why Some College Republicans Are Channeling Donald Trump,” Time, accessed January 24, 2019.

6. Daniel Marans, “Why Nancy Pelosi’s Comments About Capitalism Disappointed Progressives,” HuffPost, February 1, 2017.

7. “Harvard IOP Spring 2016 Poll: Clinton in Commanding Lead Over Trump Among Young Voters, Harvard Youth Poll Finds,” Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, April 25, 2016.

8. For a more in-depth analysis of this topic, see “A Socialist Case Against Bernie 2020.”

9. Sources: Work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, 1947-2017 (Washington DC: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics); Work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, January – December 2018 (Washington DC: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

About author

Nicolás Daneri

Nicolás Daneri

Nico is a writer and editor for La Izquierda Diario and a collaborator for Left Voice. He lives in Buenos Aires